Now Let Your Servant Depart in Peace: Simeon’s Song in the Advent Tradition

Nunc Dimittis or Asunto místico by Fiovanni Bellini (1505-1510) 


The world’s first Christmas carols can be found in the Book of Luke. The three major canticles—Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Zachariah’s Benedictus (1:67-79), and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32)—are among the first Christian praise songs that we know anything about. They are much more than Luke’s attempt to reconstruct dialogue that he was not around for. They represent the powerful thoughts and feelings that the very first Christians had while contemplating the central event of their new religion.

I have written before about the Magnificat, perhaps the best-known of these canticles. Today, though, I want to focus on the third of the three, the Nunc Dimittis (“Now you let depart”), or the Canticle of Simeon.

Simeon himself was a minor player in the Advent drama who nonetheless gets one of the coolest songs—like the suitcase girl in Evita or the Brush-Up-Your-Shakespeare guys in Kiss Me Kate. He was an old and righteous man who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would live until he saw the Messiah. He was in the Temple when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to be presented at the pidyon haben, or the ceremony of redemption of the firstborn son. Simeon takes the baby Jesus in his arms and prays,

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

(Luke 2:29-32 NRSV)

A lot is going on in these four lines, so we need to take some time to unpack them. Luke quite intentionally casts Simeon as both a transitional figure and a torch passer. He has lived all of his life as a Jew and a faithful observer of the Mosaic Law. And as part of that faithful observance, he has looked forward every day to the coming of the Messiah—the hero of prophecy who would redeem Israel and restore its people to their former glory. When he sees Jesus, he immediately recognizes the Messiah he has been waiting for. He tells God that he is ready to die in peace, knowing that Israel’s salvation has arrived.

But Luke also makes some arguments here that reflect the context of his ministry. Simeon doesn’t just say that the Jewish Messiah has arrived to defeat the Romans and restore the Kingdom of David. He says that Christ has come “in the presence of all peoples” and that he will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people.” The order is important. Of the four Gospels, Luke’s is the one most directed to non-Jews, and from the very beginning, he foregrounds Christ’s ministry to all people.

And he gives everybody—Gentile and Jew alike—a mechanism for recognizing Jesus as the Messiah. In 2:26, he says that “it had been revealed to [Simeon] by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. This all becomes part of Luke’s overall message, which is something like: the birth of Christ marked the moment that everything changed: from the Old Testament to the New Testament, from the Law to the Gospel. The fact that this change was coming has always been understood by those who understand the scriptures, and the Holy Spirit will confirm it to you, whether you are a Jew or a Gentile.

Owing, I suspect, to the enormity of the transition that Simeon represents, his story, and the Nunc Dimittis, was adapted by two of the most significant English-language poets of the 20th century: T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, whose works we will now examine.

Eliot’s “A Song for Simeon” (1928) is the more straightforward of the two works. Following the text in Luke, he presents Simeon as an old man who has led a good life and is now ready to go on to his reward. He is tired and relieved that he is not going to have to be part of the world-changing events that lie ahead. He is content to leave both the agony and the ecstasy to the younger generations:

According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let they servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.

Auden’s Simeon is both a more complicated and more universal figure who appears in a lengthy prose dialogue with the chorus in Auden’s Christmas Oratorio For the Time Being. Auden’s Simeon is a philosopher capable of analyzing and interpreting the historical moment of which he is a part. Of the historical moment itself, Simeon says:

From the beginning until now God spoke through his prophets. The Word aroused the uncomprehending depths of their flesh to a witnessing fury, and their witness was this: that the Word should be made Flesh. Yet their witness could only be received as long as it was vaguely misunderstood. . . . For it could only be fulfilled when it was no longer possible to receive, because it was clearly understood as absurd. The Word could not be made Flesh until men had reached a state of absolute contradiction between clarity and despair in which they would have no choice but either to accept absolutely or reject absolutely yet in their choice there should be no element of luck, for they would be fully conscious of what they were accepting or rejecting.

For Auden, this is the central contradiction of Christmas: for a modern rationalist, hope in Christ is both necessary and impossible. It is necessary because we cannot live meaningfully in the world without hope—hope that there is a God, that the world has meaning and moral order, that there is some purpose to our existence, and that some part of us will survive the end of our life on earth. But hope for these things violates all of the rational principles upon which modern society is based. We must therefore choose between two option pairs: faith and hope on the one hand, or rationality and despair on the other.

Simeon is an important part of the Advent story because he has lived his entire life both believing and not believing in Christ. He believed passionately and profoundly in a Messiah that would come in the future. But future Messiahs are easy to believe in. They don’t really make demands on our traditions or our intellect. We can vaguely believe that something good will happen in the future. We can wish for it and hope for it without ever having to change what we are doing now or reconcile the impossible intellectual contradictions that faith creates.

And because of his visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.

Simeon is the Everyman character of the story, and he is the first person who has to make a conscious choice to embrace both faith and hope and to reject despair. The Nunc Dimittis is both the mechanism of that commitment and the recognition of the peace that it brings. In the language of Advent, Simeon’s song represents the very moment that hope connects with peace and produces joy. As we meditate on these themes during the Advent season, the Nunc Dimittis gives us a tangible image of the conversion that we seek.

Special Bonus: Like the Magnificat, The Nunc Dimittis has been set to music by most of the world’s great composers. Choosing one is difficult, but, for your Advent enjoyment, here is the text as set to music by Sergei Rachmaninoff as part of his phenomenal “All Night Vigil,op. 37

Comments

  1. Thanks, Michael, for your Advent messages, and for sharing the music. It is truly sublime.

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